A Hundred Miles of Bad Road: An Armored Cavalryman in Vietnam, 1967-68, by Dwight Birdwell and Keith William Nolan, Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1997, $24.95.
Keith Nolan is well-known for his gripping Vietnam battle narratives. During research for his recent book on the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the actions of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry, of the Tropic Lightning (25th Infantry) Division, he met Dwight Birdwell, who fought at Tan Son Nhut air base with that squadron.
This first-person biographical narrative illustrates the alpha and omega of professionalism in the Vietnam War. Editor Nolan adds occasional paragraphs to keep the story in context. Birdwell experienced two types of war in Vietnam–the pre-Tet 1968 “strac” army (strictly following regulations) and the post-Tet institution, which was deteriorating and beset, as he describes it, by drugs, rookies and doubts about America’s mission in Vietnam. Birdwell, then a tank commander, describes the transition in the American prosecution of the war in Vietnam. He was thrice wounded and twice decorated with the Silver Star.
The first part of the book retells, from Birdwell’s perspective, the tale told previously by Nolan in The Battle for Saigon: Tet 1968. Birdwell extends the story with descriptions of actions up to August 1968, when a change of command and accompanying policy changes caused him to become disillusioned. He had nine more months on his enlistment and did not relish a Stateside assignment. He extended his tour in Vietnam, got a job in the rear driving a jeep and qualified for an early out directly from the combat zone. He later regretted taking the easy way out–“rotting in the rear,” as he put it. Birdwell relates the problems of an army on the wane with stories of indiscipline and drug abuse. He sensed that he was “turning into a real jerk” in the rear area at Cu Chi, but he made it to his date of return to the States in late December without getting killed or busted.
As his plane lifted off from Bien Hoa air base, Birdwell noted the contrast in the scenery below from what he had seen on his arrival 16 months earlier–previously a “green paradise,” it now resembled “a moonscape.” He reflected: “We had come and laid waste, but we had not conquered. It was difficult to believe we had accomplished anything at all.”
Nolan has provided a view of Vietnam combat through the eyes of one soldier. It may not be representative of everyone’s service there, but much of what Birdwell relates rings true. He is among the majority of Vietnam vets who got on with their lives after the war. But, as Birdwell is quick to point out, Vietnam is always with him–an unforgettable part of his life, that “constant lump in [his] chest called Vietnam.”
Colonel John F. Votaw
U.S. Army (ret.)